Classroom Perspectives

Teaching the Teacher: Cultural

Teaching the Teacher: Cultural

By Cameron Conaway

Here in Thailand where I live, the Thai people place their palms together in front of their chest and lightly bow—a way to say hello. Many Europeans tend to cheek-kiss, while Americans are the king of handshakes. Culture encompasses and represents what a society or people deem important, historic or excellent with regard to characteristics, mannerisms, art, etc. Our students, especially if we are teaching in a different area (whether different because of race, religion, beliefs, or environment) have loads to teach us about their culture if we’re interested.

Books like “The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World” by Dr. Howard Cutler and Dalai Lama and films such as Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” demonstrate that we live in a global society whose artists and educators are increasingly documenting, reporting and studying the negative impacts of racism and discrimination. However, the positives of the inverse aren’t addressed nearly as much. The world is becoming more multicultural and more integrated and this is a perfect opportunity for teachers to both learn for ourselves and create those always-rewarding “teachable moments.” Cultivating culture embraces two values often neglected in formal education: understanding and empathy.

Here are two practical lesson ideas. Of course, they’ll need to be adapted depending on age.

(1) Ekphrasis writing, in its broadest term, is writing about a piece of visual art. Find a photograph depicting something students may have never seen, for example, a floating market, the Japanese bullet train, a Native American in full headdress, etc. Then ask students to write from the perspective of the person in the photograph. The results, at times, will be creative (and informative for you) and will always open the way to a discussion about others as different but, more importantly, as self.

(2) Using National Geographic’s extensive video collection, select a series of music clips from different countries, and break into discussion groups with prompted questions like, “Why might one country’s music differ from another?” Music videos are listed by country , but there are also brief videos (on places like Angkor to the nomadic Wodaabe) as well as those specifically made to help young students grasp certain concepts. Likewise, the short clip-lengths will allow plenty of time for students to discuss their views/differences in upbringing as well as to create art based on what they saw and learned.

“Culture” has roots tracing back to the year 1400. It meant “to till” or “to cultivate the soil” to that, we can add, “and the soul.”

Cameron Conaway was an instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. The residency allowed him to spend two years teaching in diverse environments throughout Arizona – from the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation to lower income high schools, from University Honors classes to juvenile detention centers. His book, Until You Make the Shore (Jan 2012, Salmon Poetry) grew out of his experiences teaching inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is currently studying Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of To ask Cameron questions or to join his team, connect with him via social media at

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